salvage car
May 21, 2011 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Buying a salvage used car; what should I know?

I'm currently driving a salvage Honda Fit, and it's great - no problems in the year I've had it (knock on wood). My girlfriend is looking to buy a car, definitely used, and is considering a salvaged Honda Insight.

What questions should she ask when buying? Is there anything to know, specifically, about buying salvaged cars vs. other used cars? We're in the Los Angeles, CA area.
posted by insectosaurus to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total)
I am also in the L.A. area and boy, those salvage titles look attractive. It is amazing - none of them were ever in serious accidents! I must have called craigslist ads for 5 or 10 hybrid salvage titles, and ALL of them had damage to their speakers, a theft that resulted in the loss of their CD/radio, or bumper issues that resulted in those crazy insurance companies terming the car a total loss. Despite there being absolutely nothing wrong with the car, when it was re-titled it then had a salvage title. Sad, huh, but a great deal for you, right?

Don't do it.

You may have never had a problem with a salvage titled car, but they ARE trouble. The fact that it was written off as a total loss by the insurance company means that a lot of damage was done. For a late model Prius, it means that repairing the car would cost them more than $13-20k. That is not cosmetic damage, or missing speakers. That is damage that means that even if they clean the car up cosmetically, you are still driving (and your girlfriend will be driving) a car that may CAUSE an accident, or may not PROTECT YOU ADEQUATELY in an accident. If you're lucky, the damage may just result in increased mechanics costs. If you're unlucky, it could cost you your life, or your girlfriends'.

Lest you write this off as hyperbole, my uncle works as a mechanic, and he read me almost precisely this lecture when he heard that I went and test-drove a salvage titled car. He said he would far rather me be driving a classic car with no modern safety equipment (air bags, etc) than a modern salvage titled car. He said that in 100% of the cases that he's seen, salvage titled cars cost $$$ to maintain and fix as problems evolve over time, and two of his clients have either died or have had a family member die in a salvage titled car.

There is a reason they are salvage titles. Please do not risk your safety or your girlfriend's by buying one.

If you absolutely MUST get a salvage titled car, 1) get CARFAX so you can have the details of what happened to the car from the horse's mouth (not the seller, who has no incentive to tell you the truth and may not know it himself). 2) Take the car to a dealership or a trusted mechanic and ask them to examine it. At the Toyota dealership, they will do what they call a "pre-purchase/pre-sale inspection" for $150 and provide you with a detailed report about what is wrong with it.

If she wants an Insight, how about the late model first gen ones from 2000, 2001, and 2002? They get amazing gas mileage and you can get one for a decent price.

Good luck.
posted by arnicae at 11:53 AM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the main concerns with salvaged cars is how they're going to react structurally in a crash. If the frame is weakened, it may crumple in an unexpected way if you hit something. Definitely ask about how any damage happened. Sometimes an insurance company just writes off older cars that have relatively inconsequential problems. Sometimes that's not the case.

When a large tree fell on my 96 Accord, it really only smashed the windshield and one of the front pillars (the bit between the door and the windshield). When I brought up fixing it and keeping the car under a salvaged title, my main car advisers all said it was a bad idea.

"You had a thousand pounds of tree sitting for a couple days on a spot where a tree is not supposed to go. The frame is weakened and now you don't know how it's going to react in a crash. Don't keep it," said one. This was someone who once drove around for six months in a car whose door was held on by a screwdriver.

Are people going to be honest about the damage? Maybe. Are there cars out there with relatively minor damage that are salvaged? Yes. Would I take that chance? No.
posted by corey flood at 11:54 AM on May 21, 2011

Oh, one more thing. If you do buy a salvage titled car, get the seller to write up what is wrong with the car (particularly if he gives you the "thieves stole the stereo and the car was salvage titled as a result" song and dance), sign it, and get a photo of his driver's license.

Not that this does you much good, but it might make them think twice about not telling you the whole picture.
posted by arnicae at 11:55 AM on May 21, 2011

Yeah, I have to go with the crowd here. Unless you are your own mechanic, don't do it. Insurance companies aren't stupid, they aren't going to total a car unless it really would cost more to repair than the policy will pay.

A relatively simple example might be that the car just can't be aligned correctly. Besides being unpredictable in emergency maneuvers, the thing is going to eat tires. How many extra sets of tires will it take to make up the price difference between the salvage car and a normal used one?

Not to mention, I don't believe the insurance companies will insure a salvaged vehicle.

(I'm not saying there aren't deals to be had. But as a rule, I'd stay away from them.)
posted by gjc at 1:55 PM on May 21, 2011

I guess I am going to go against the crowd here and advocate for at least looking into salvaged options. I have one from a mechanic I really trust. He took photos of the car at every step, including before any repairs were made so I know exactly what happened to it and what repairs were done. Also, if a dealer says the damage was minor, I think that is a huge red car, which is not a luxury vehicle by any means, was very significantly damaged in order to be considered totaled. And my mechanic did a lot of work to get it back into shape.

All and all, I've had the car for 5 years with no issues and at least in Wisconsin, it is insurable with full coverage. I would say I probably saved between 2-3 thousand dollars on the purchase price, which at the time allowed me to get significantly more car. I think if you go into it looking for an honest mechanic, there are decent deals to be had.
posted by mjcon at 2:46 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can get older hybrids fairly cheap on Craigslist.

A salvage titled car will probably be cheaper, but you'll have to pay a ton to get it up and running, and who knows how many issues you'll end up having.
posted by Slinga at 4:45 PM on May 21, 2011

Find out what your state will require for the registration of a used car. I lived in a state that mandated a frame x-ray at the dmv. Failing the x-ray meant a)having a car that couldn't be driven legally, or b)spending thousands to try to fix said frame. I didn't take that bet.
posted by heigh-hothederryo at 5:23 PM on May 21, 2011

DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT buy a salvaged Hybrid vehicle.
Working at a Toyota dealership as a technician, I see a never-ending river of problems involving salvaged Prius hybrids and the endless bad luck that comes with the installation of used/junkyard/salvaged hybrid parts. Hybrids have components that costs thousands more than normal car parts. Batteries, inverters, and electric motors will still cost multiple thousands of dollars USED and there's no way of determining their condition prior to installation. My working theory is that the hybrid components, when left stationary and in an environment exposed to moisture (ie, sitting in a field, out doors, in a puddle, flood, whatever you get from a salvage/junkyard) develop corrosion and other problems.
Please, don't do it. If you really want to save money with a salvage title, buy a conventional gasoline vehicle. I can't stress this enough.
posted by Jon-o at 5:29 PM on May 21, 2011

I spend a lot of time in salvage lots and do work on my own car (a beater).

I would consider a salvage car only if the initial blue book value were so low, than the damage could be relatively minor. Like a 20 year old Honda Civic. Then I'd have my mechanic (not me, my mechanic) do a thorough inspection. Last time I looked, even old Hybrids were going for well over $5000. Damage at and above that level is no longer fender-bender territory.
posted by zippy at 5:44 PM on May 21, 2011

Ahem. "Find out what your state will require for the registration of a *salvaged* car."
X-Rays and whatnot will mean no driving for you.
posted by heigh-hothederryo at 7:31 PM on May 21, 2011

A car that's been written off has been written off for a reason. It may look great, it may also have fallen off a bridge last week. Damage to the frame is dangerous, not so much in the 'car won't start in the morning' way but in the 'disintegrate around you if you have a crash' way. If you know a mechanic and he's willing to look it over for you properly (on a ramp, the whole deal) then fine but proceed with care. Buying one just because it looks shiny could work out for you, could be a really bad decision. Going down a steep hill in heavy traffic in the rain is not the time to find out the brakes slip and the steering's dodgy.
posted by joannemullen at 7:55 PM on May 21, 2011

Also beware of salvaged cars that were flooded. They may look fine and it may take several years for the electrical problems to surface, they are nothing more than ticking time-bombs.
posted by JujuB at 11:07 PM on May 21, 2011

I drive a 2003 Honda Civic with a salvage title, and I've had zero problems in the 4 years that I've owned it. I have relatives who own an auto shop, and they bought the car at auction, fixed it up (mostly body work), showed me photos along the way, got it through state inspection, etc. My only complaints are that auctioned cars usually only come with one key (I bought a key fob off Ebay and programmed it myself), and they rarely come with an owner's manual (I found a PDF of mine online). I don't plan on getting rid of this car until it dies, so the reduced resale value isn't a problem.

My car prior to the Civic was an Accord with a clean title but had been in a crash. It was haunted and in cold weather it would randomly shut off at slow speeds, not start up, etc. I'll take an unhaunted salvage titled car over a haunted clean titled car any day.
posted by Maarika at 10:34 AM on May 22, 2011

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